HONG KONG, China - The U.S. Navy's aircraft carrier USS George Washington arrived in Hong Kong on Tuesday for a routine port visit after conducting exercises with the Japanese and South Korean navies.
The visit comes as a U.S.-China tug-of-war over Southeast Asian influence is proving to be a critical test for Washington's "pivot" East as Beijing strengthens its economic and military clout in its own backyard.
Countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), one of the world's fastest growing regions, are this week weighing up how to play their cards as the United States plays catch-up with the Chinese juggernaut and tries to reassert itself in Asia.
Washington's recent flurry of engagement with ASEAN states - from the Philippines and Thailand to Singapore and Vietnam - is a potential source of friction with China, especially as tempers flare over territorial disputes and the rapid Chinese military build-up in the resource-rich South China Sea.
This week China appointed a famously hawkish senior navy commander as the political commissar of the South Sea fleet of the Chinese navy, while Beijing reiterated it would protect its territorial rights.
But the George Washington's commanding officer, David Lausman, said joint exercises were vital in trying to contain misunderstandings in the region.
"Yes, we did an exercise together with the navies of Japan and the Republic of Korea and it was very exciting. That's really the kind of thing we like to do throughout our patrol no matter where we go we love to work with the navies of all the Western Pacific countries in international waters. Working together, working on inter-operability, getting to understand each other. The more we understand each other, the less chance there's going to be miscalculation or misunderstanding that might lead to tensions. So the offer is there always to work with every navy of the western Pacific whenever we meet in international waters throughout our patrol," he said.
China has territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan across the South China Sea, each searching for gas and oil while building up their navies and military alliances.
Executive Director of Sydney's Lowy Institute, Michael Wesley, said that the recent stand-offs with China means that many countries in the region are turning to the United States for a powerful ally.
"China's been doing very well in building acceptance of its rise among Southeast Asian countries. But the one issue that it will not let go of is the South China Sea issue. That makes a lot of countries of Southeast Asia very worried about what China's intentions are. So it will mean that the United States is welcomed back into the region. I think the United States is now more welcome and popular in this part of the world than it has been probably since the end of the Vietnam War. And I think it's very much to do with the contending claims and the escalating rhetoric around the South China Sea," he said.
Southeast Asian foreign ministers are currently meeting in Cambodia to draw up a long-delayed Code of Conduct to be signed by them and China aimed at easing friction in the South China Sea.